Free speech meets firebombs

Last week, the great George Conger reflected on the cover of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, which featured a cartoon image of Mohammad. He used that incident to discuss two press related issues -- the inaccurate claim that Islam prohibits representations of Mohammed and the moral cowardice displayed by many press outlets that respond to terrorist threats with censorship or calls for censorship. He added:

In his 1946 essay, “Why I Write”, George Orwell stated, “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism.” This is the duty of a free press. Though Stalinism and Fascism no longer have a place in Western intellectual life, the cant, hypocrisy and moral dishonesty they represented remain part of our intellectual and philosophical lives. And it is in this work, in challenging the orthodoxies of left and right, that journalism achieves its moral purpose.

The offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed shortly thereafter. And then something truly vile happened. The Paris correspondent for Time magazine blamed the victim:

Not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction? . . .

We, by contrast, have another reaction to the firebombing: Sorry for your loss, Charlie, and there's no justification of such an illegitimate response to your current edition. But do you still think the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of "because we can" was so worthwhile? If so, good luck with those charcoal drawings your pages will now be featuring. . . .

Apart from unconvincing claims of exercising free speech in Western nations where that right no longer needs to be proved, it's unclear what the objectives of the caricatures were other than to offend Muslims--and provoke hysteria among extremists.

If Time magazine's leaders have any moral sense, author Bruce Crumley would already be fired. How convenient for Crumley that defenders of free speech don't respond to his bold, brave rhetoric with their own violence, eh? It's so easy to speak against free speech and defend terrorist threats, really. So manly of Mr. Crumley.

It's worth remembering, for the thousandth time, that images of Mohammed are not prohibited by "Islam." That's in large part because there is no one Islam. We know that there are copious drawings of Mohammed in museums throughout the world and that these drawings go back centuries. There are some streams of Islam that warn against depictions of the prophet and others that think that drawing or publishing images of Mohammed is a capital crime.

Jamie Kirchik wrote an essay in The Index on Censorship about what bothered him the most about Time's display of cowardice. He mentioned the unspoken rule in the Republic of Letters: No one should be physically harmed, let alone threatened, for something that they publish.

Writers in the West rarely have to confront violence, certainly not from the state. Writers with a social conscience understand that they have something important in common with writers, whom they may never know, in far away lands. We are united in a fundamental belief: that freedom of expression is irrevocable and fundamental to a free society. We see this grand tradition of literary solidarity in organizations like PEN International, advocates for writers in authoritarian regimes whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by the mere exercise of activities which we in the West take for granted. And you see it in this fine publication, Index on Censorship, which for four decades has been exhaustively documenting challenges to free expression around the world.

That’s why the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was such a clarifying moment; here was a man who had published a book in the birthplace of free speech — the United Kingdom — whose murder had been suborned by a fanatical cleric halfway around the world. As Christopher Hitchens wrote about the death warrant put out for his friend, “I thought then, and I think now, that this was not just a warning of what was to come. It was the warning. The civil war in the Muslim world, between those who believed in jihad and Shari’a and those who did not, was coming to our streets and cities.”

Over the past decade, that civil war has intensified on the streets of Western cities; Amsterdam, (where the artist Theo van Gogh was murdered in broad daylight for a film which criticized misogynistic Koran verses), Nyhamnsläge, (the Swedish village where the home of cartoonist Lars Vilks, who drew images of Mohammed, has been repeatedly attacked), Aarhus (the Danish town where fellow prophet-image-maker Kurt Westergaard had to hide in a “panic room” after an axe-wielding Muslim broke into his home). It has thus been heartening to see this fundamental understanding among writers — that, no matter our political disagreements, we are all colleagues in a vitally important element of the free society — flower in response to a truly vile little excrescence by Bruce Crumley, the Paris correspondent for TIME magazine.

As George himself wrote, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were puerile. But since Wahhabist Muslims would be just as offended by Gustave Doré illustrations of Mohammad for Dante’s Inferno, aesthetic considerations are not really the issue.

Still, Crumley's words go beyond disapproving of mockery of Islam, which we ourselves have inveighed against here at GetReligion. His column could not be more mendacious (His suggestion that he's not justifying the violence while justifying the violence is particularly choice). The right to free speech means absolutely nothing if unpopular or offensive speech is not fundamentally protected. Even the disgusting thoughts and words of Crumley have a right to be printed. His editors have the right to fire him (as they should have when he filed his copy) and his readers have the right to stop reading Time magazine. But he should not be shot for being a coward.

But consider also the line that free speech "no longer needs to be proved"? If Kirchick's litany is news to him, Crumley shouldn't be in the news business. Free speech is precisely what's on the line when it comes to firebombing offices, issuing of death threats to writers, and waging violence in response to perceived offense. The fact that the hook for his column was the firebombing of a newspaper is all you really need to know about whether free speech is under attack.

The question isn't whether we support a given puerile essay or drawing. The question is whether we support free speech and at what cost.

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